I’ve been thinking a lot this last month, since discovering my mentor passed away, about being fearless. I wasn’t as fearless as I could have been as a performer, despite her coaching, and I’m not as fearless as I wish I were as an author. I tend to over-edit terribly, restricting my story to the point of constriction. Fearlessness comes confidence, and confidence is the One Ring of the Infernal Editor. But with practice and certain techniques I’ve gotten better. Much, much better.
Mrs. J. used to swan around the theatre shrieking “Don’t think about–just do it!” like a Bette Midler voiced Nike commercial. Every time we were unsure of what to do, became awkward and ungainly as even the most teenagers are (“all asses and elbows” she used to say) she would give us freedom–the freedom to soar, or the freedom suck–meaning that sucking was okay, even inevitable, but was still a viable place to start building, to improve. That freedom–to soar, or to suck–was scary as hell. What if we sucked? What if we were even more horrible than even our over active imaginations could devise?
It’s terrifying, being all alone out there in the cold black with a pin spot blinding you to who’s out here, watching.
Don’t think about it–just do it!
The trick lays in not giving your Infernal Editor a chance to engage. That, and arming your Divine Muse with a crossbow. Here’s a few things to put in her (or his) quiver:
Before I set out to write a story, I usually have some scattered seeds of ideas rolling around in regards to character, maybe parts of scenes or a setting. Being a visual person, I tend of have one or two half-formed scenes dying to get out of my mind, lines of dialogue twining around them like smoke. I don’t want to forget any of it, so I sketch it out on paper first. I start with three headings: People, Places, and Things. I then list everything I might want to use–important objects, characters (often nameless at first) and their potential attributes, settings and landscapes, important objects–all of it. Any lines of dialogue that have been calling to me like music, jot down. I start drawing lines, making connections–and asking questions. Basically, it’s all one, big mind dump. The human brain can only recall seven things at any given time, and though I may not end up using everything, I certainly don’t want to lose any of it.
Next, I do a story sketch (or plot incline). This is the bare-bones road map I need to tell where I’m going and when. This keeps my storylines tight, the pacing even, and makes sure I book end my plot points to create resonance with my reader. The sketch consists of one long, diagonal line moving from the bottom left of the page to the top right (white boards are really good for this), with each plot point marked out vertical lines at regular intervals. I move from the outside in: Opening and closing scenes at either end, Inciting Incident and Climax (10% and 90% marks, respectively), Plot Points One and Two (25% and 75%), and the Midpoint (where everything changes) at the 50% mark.
This is a screenwriting technique I’ve found to be highly effective. Using my story notes and sketch for reference, I start at what I think the beginning of the story is, and in one-line notes without punctuation, note everything that must happen in the story, action-wise. I leave lots of white space when I do this, because all that room to stretch out gives me (and the story) room to breathe. It’s a security blanket. These beats go on my notecards on Scrivener, so I can move them around as necessary. Now I can go back and fill in the blanks–images, dialogue, characters. I try to come up with as much detail as possible between beats so that I’m almost pre-drafting the story, getting all the raw information out onto the page, nice and safe, where it can’t be buried. Before I know it, I have a highly detailed outline, and I know where I’m going. I go over and over it again, three or four times, to make sure I shake everything out. I’m telling the story here, but not drafting it yet.
SPINNING DOWN THE PAGE
In a continuation of story beats, I begin each fresh scene with a list of action, image, and dialogue, again to make sure I don’t leave anything out. The great thing out Story Beats and Spinning Down The Page is that my Infernal Editor doesn’t see this as creative work, or drafting. In fact, this sort of thing tricks that internal menace into thinking you’re doing all left-brained work, all logic and puzzle-solving and reason. It’s like scattering seeds in front of a vampire with a serious case of OCD–they’re distracted by putting everything into its proper order. The Infernal Editor is so distracted, in fact, it doesn’t notice the right brain flying free, hang gliding through the story like the free spirit it is. Before I know it, everything I need to draft a deep, nuanced scene is right there, in black and white. The story is already being written–I just have to craft it.
When it comes time for drafting, I ask the Tech Monkey if he needs anything while I’m up. We live in a small condo with two Ninja Katz. Sound echoes like a sumbitch. If he doesn’t need more ice, or to tell me anything, or to show me his new spaceship in his online game (or even if he does), I make sure he’s settled and then tell him–in no uncertain terms–that I’m going to be working. I then clap the biggest, most obnoxious sound studio, noise-cancelling headphones I have to hand over my ears and either listen to music via Pandora, or (and this is incredibly effective), white noise from somewhere like MoodTurn. While writing the last part of Act III on The Minstrel’s Daughter, I listened to beach sounds–because that particular part of the story takes entirely at sea, and it put me right in the scene, scary-close to the action.
HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER
This is a trick I learned from Ernest Hemingway, and I’ve found that it works. I’ll type like mad until I get to a really, really exciting bit. And then I stop, right at the edge of what comes next. That’s right. I stop, I get up, I walk away–even if I have to leave it midsentence. By now even the Infernal Editor is dying to know what happens next. He hates it when you leave something unfinished. Then when I come back for my next drafting session, I can read the last paragraph or two–and dive right in. Not only does this stop me from getting burned out, but keeps my flow moving between sessions.
Mind you, there are still times I have to muscle on through–but by the time I do, I’m prepped and warmed up and trained to do the muscling. I have all the ammo I need to make it happen. So does the comfort of knowing no one’s ever going to see my first draft–or even my second–except me. This gives me permission to suck on my own turns–because once I put it away for awhile and come back to it with some perspective, I can take the raw material of story, and craft it into a book.
I hope this helps you write fearlessly in future. Because no one has the right to make you afraid to take a chance, including yourself.